From Nowheresville To Nirvana: The Origins Of Dave Grohl

Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Bob Mould… and all of them on the same stage. Taking place on Monday, May 31, 2010, the 30th anniversary concert of Washington’s 9:30 Club is a night which none of the 1,200 hardcore punk fans in attendance will be forgetting any time soon. And rightly so. This space – since 1996 located at the old site of the WUST Radio Music Hall rather than the 930 F Street address that, along with the old opening time, gives it its name – is a truly important place in the genesis of punk rock, DC hardcore and alternative music in general. You only have to ask the hush-hush special guest, who is just about to play a solo version of his own band’s ‘Everlong’.

“The first time I played at 9:30 Club, I was about 15 or 16 years old,” he tells the crowd by way of introduction. “I was in a band called Dain Bramage, and we played here. That night, one of my drumming heroes – a guy called Reed Mullin from a band called Corrosion Of Conformity – was in the audience. After soundcheck, he came up to me and said, ‘You guys are kind of good. You wanna put out a record?’ he hooked us up with a guy who had a record label called Fart Blossom and I made my first album. So thank you very much 9:30 Club!”

Following on from the one-man performance of his current, stadium-filling band’s greatest song, Dave Grohl then invites onstage his old band mates from local hardcore legends Scream (minus guitarist Franz Stahl). They play their own song ‘Choke Word’, and then proceed to take on two songs by an even more seminal Washington punk band, Bad Brains. The first is ‘At The Atlantis’; then comes ‘Stay Close To Me’: B-side to Bad Brains’ first single ‘Pay To Cum’, which was released in 1980. It’s the high point on a night that – as the Washington Post puts it – gives everyone walking out of the venue “some serious bragging rights”.


Being just 11 years old at the time, David Eric Grohl did not buy the above-mentioned single when it first came out. No, in 1980 and into the year after, the young Springfield, Virginia resident was still feeding off the classic rock-heavy record collection that’s been introduced into the family home by his mother’s new man. He loved Led Zep, Jethro Tull, The Grateful Dead and especially The Beatles. Noticing her son’s new-found love, Virginia Grohl decides to go out and buy Dave a Silvertone guitar, a little amp and a Fab Four songbook.

“I used to just sit down and play along with all their songs,” he remembers. “Not because I wanted to be in The Beatles or because I wanted to be a rock star. It was just my favourite thing in life to do – to sit down and play my guitar, to just play these songs. From there on in that’s all I was doing.”

Playing in bands inevitably follows. Nothing serious: just fast, fun covers – ‘Louie Louie’ and suchlike – blasted through by 13-year-old kids at parties, backyards, wherever. It’s only when Dave and his sister spend the summer of 1982 at his cousin’s house in Evanston, Illinois, that his passion becomes focused.

“We got there, and my Aunt Sherry goes, ‘Tracy, they’re here. Come downstairs!’” he says of this fateful first meeting. “Then I hear this ‘chink, chink, chink,’ coming down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs I see she has chains on and bondage pants and combat boots. I’m like, ‘Oh, she’s punk.’”

Dave is not wrong about Tracy Bradford. At 16, she is by now totally and utterly immersed in the punk-rock scene. Two years previously, she became a singer of her own band, Verboten. As well as playing gigs in Chicago’s proper grown-up punk venues, the stupidly young quartet even managed to bluff their way on Saturday morning TV show Kidding Around, playing two of their own songs: ‘Slumpshot’ and ‘My Opinion’.


As the guitarist Jason – staggeringly, a mere 10 years old at the time – remembers: “She just knew a ton of people on the scene. It was her who said, ‘OK… well, I’m sort of friends with the Dead Kennedys, so let’s get a band and put out a single.’ She was quite the charmer, and people really took to her.”

That summer, one more person is falling under both her spell and punk rock’s. Her cousin sits in her room for hours on end as she plays seven-inch after seven-inch. She takes him out to shows. A few weeks later, Dave Grohl returns home an avid reader of San Francisco-based underground fanzine Maximumrocknroll, now well aware of who Bad Brains are, and referring to himself as a punk. He tries to give himself a Black Flag tattoo, which he will mention to Henry Rollins years later as Rollins introduces Grohl at a 30th anniversary show for the club that shaped him.

To put it simply in Dave’s own words, “I was totally converted.”

Having discovered to his surprise that there is in fact a vibrant hardcore scene in Washington DC – just a couple of miles down the road from his mother’s home – Dave Grohl doesn’t waste any time making himself part of it. It is the time of Minor Threat, SOA and Faith – local bands who will go on to provide the template for the entire US underground punk scene.

“That scene really instilled that DIY ethic,” Dave notes. “It was totally independent and underground. As well as a band, I had a fanzine, I traded tapes. By 1984 I was immersed in it.”

The band of which he speaks are Freak Baby, who he joins on second guitar having met bassist Brian Samuels at a local gig. “We played a few school shows and made a demo,” Dave says. “We convinced the local record store, Smash, to sell our cassettes and managed to gain a following of four or five local skinheads.”

It is only six months later when the now-four-piece realise they’re onto something. The band is now called Mission Impossible, and Dave is sat down. By this point, driven on to further listening extremes – Venom, Motörhead, Slayer – he’s decided that drums are the instrument on which he’ll express himself from now on.

“In my bedroom, I had a chair that was next to my bed,” he explains of how he discovered and began mastering his new passion.

“I would kneel down on the floor and put a pillow between my legs to use as my snare. I would use the chair to my left as the hi-hat and use the bed as toms and cymbals. I’d put on Minor Threat’s ‘Out Of Step’, Bad Brains’ ‘Rock For Light’ and Rush’s ‘2112’. I’d play along to those records until there was sweat literally dripping off the windows.”

When Dave finally gets a kit, his abilities do not go unnoticed by the DC hardcore scene. Ian MacKaye – of Minor Threat, soon to be of Fugazi and co-founder of Dischord Records – has been told by everyone that he has to see this 16-year-old prodigy. Eventually he does, and, like everybody else is blown away by the sheer power, speed and aggression of his playing, describing him as “maniacal”.

It’s at this point that Dain Bramage enter the picture, having formed out of the ashes of Mission Impossible. A three-piece featuring Reuben Radding, MI’s David Smith and Dave Grohl on drums, they write seven songs in one rehearsal and are offered a deal to put out an album, ‘I Scream Not Coming Down’, after Dave’s first show at the 9:30 Club. But it doesn’t last long. Their music, drawing from the experimental post-punk sounds of Television and Mission Of Burma, is not amazingly received.

And anyway, Dave Grohl has had his head turned, while buying drumsticks, by a card on the bulletin board of his local music store. It reads: ‘Scream: looking for a drummer.’

Having formed six years earlier, by ’87 Scream have released three albums and are firmly established on the DC hardcore scene. The music is more advanced than many of their contemporaries, drawing from classic rock and funk.

With these influences and actual singing, some initially deride Scream for being “a rock’n’roll covers band” – “We did have a song called ‘Search & Destroy’,” bassist Skeeter Thompson later tells a fanzine – but Dave Grohl is not one of them. He first sees them in 1983, shortly after his revelatory summer with his punk-rock cousin, and is in awe from the very start. “They were so fucking good,” he says. “And when I discovered they were from Virginia like me, they became my heroes”.

Grohl remains a diehard fan while the purists scoff at their rock classicist tendencies, and is further impressed by their progress. In summer of 1986, Scream embark on a mammoth tour of Europe – no mean feat for a punk band at this point. There’s a sense among some that they are meant for bigger things than the DC hardcore scene. So when they return that year, drummer Kent Stax quits to spend more time with his kid and that advert goes up, Dain Bramage’s drummer is forced to make a tough decision.

“I called the number,” Dave recalls. “I had to lie about my age because I was only 17 at the time, but I spoke to Franz and he asked me to come meet him at their basement. I got there, and he asks me if I want to play some covers – AC/DC, Zeppelin – and I said, ‘No. let’s play your songs.’ I knew all their songs anyway. We ran through their whole fucking catalogue, note for note, front to back. They asked me to join.”

Dave initially explains that he is already in a band, and so can’t. Unsure about whether he should be quitting high school at this stage in his life, Dave Grohl goes along to see Scream play a month later. This confirms it for him – that this is the band he wants to be in, and the life he wants to live. Thus he has to drop out of high school in his senior year, so that he can head on tour – first to the south-east US, then Europe.

Initially, he loves every single minute of it. His first show with the band is an Amnesty International benefit, after which the audience march on the embassies of countries known for human rights violations; he makes the album ‘No More Censorship’; Scream tour America five times and Europe three, and in every town, there is always a squat to sleep in, always a grateful fan or promoter to provide some food, always a couple of beers here or there. But the problems are not far off. The drugs; the getting home to find that they’ve been evicted. The sense that maybe they’d missed their window, that things were not going to get better.

“You can only eat so much bad food,” Dave Grohl shrugs. “I was only 20, but I was starting to question if this was how I wanted my life to be. I was tired of having nothing, tired of being hungry, tired of having nowhere to live.”

These feelings unhappily coincided with the demise of a band he’d once been in awe of. On a sparsely attended tour in 1990, Scream pull into LA, and Skeeter disappears.

This is not uncommon – short-term replacements had often been drafted in. Plus, reportedly, the bassist has a spiralling drug addiction. Possessions and equipment are always going “missing”.

The official reason for his departure is “girlfriend trouble”. But whatever, it doesn’t really matter: the point is that Scream are now stuck in California with no money. In what Pete Stahl will remember as “a depressing time”, the remaining members spend a month with the Stahl’s sister, Sabrina, over in Laurel Canyon, and come to terms with that fact it might well be all over. Dave busies himself with drinking free beer and helps tile the floor of his friend’s coffee shop.

One day, he notices that The Melvins, with whose singer Buzz Osborne he bonded when they shared a bill in San Francisco, are due to play in Los Angeles soon. He calls up his old pal, on the blag for a pass to the show, and begins telling him about the plight of his band, and how depressed about it all he is.

As it turns out, this will be the phonecall that changes his life.

Like Spinal Tap, Nirvana had always had their problems with drummers. They’d started out in 1985 with Aaron Burckhard who, as well as frequently skipping practices and generally winding up his band mates, manages to get Kurt Cobain’s car impounded after a fight with a police officer. His replacement is Dale Crover, who had previously played bass with Kurt in Fecal Matter – he plays on the first Nirvana demo in Seattle. Unfortunately, he is actually in The Melvins, and is merely helping out.

In what turns out to be a bad move, he recommends a guy called Dave Foster. Dave can play, but also lives hours away and, after having his driving license revoked for assault on the Mayor of Cosmopolis’ son, has to be picked up by Kurt and Krist for each practice. Foster discovers he’s out only when he sees an advert for a Nirvana show in support of Butthole Surfers that he doesn’t know anything about.

With the recording of their debut single and album for Sub Pop impending, Chad Channing is drafted in. Playing on most of ‘Bleach’, he makes it as far as the first sessions with Butch Vig in April 1990 (his version of ‘Polly’ appears on ‘Nevermind’), but falls out with Kurt when he insists on taking more of an active role in the band’s songwriting.

At some point during all of this, Krist and Kurt had attended a Scream show and, like everybody else, been “blown away” by the sheer power and volume of the drummer. Privately, they agreed that if they ever got the chance, they should get him to join Nirvana. Now, in September of 1990, having been given Krist’s number by Buzz Osborne, he’s on the phone.

“We just talked about music,” Dave says of that fateful first conversation. “There was a common ground, and it felt pretty compatible. I went out and bought a copy of ‘Bleach’, and played it 10 times. I just packed up my kit and flew up to Seattle.”

Greeted by two guys who, as he puts it, “looked like dirty fucking biker children”, Dave Grohl is surprised by just how sweet and accommodating Cobain and Novoselic are. On September 22, 1990, Nirvana have a show booked at the Motorsports International Garage. Dave goes along. On drums that night is Nirvana’s fifth drummer: Dan Peters of Mudhoney, who has just played on single ‘Sliver’. In the 14-song set that evening are two songs – opener ‘Stay Away’, ‘In Bloom’ – that are destined for the second Nirvana album. Dave in fact spends a lot of the set outside talking to a friend, but what he sees is enough. And besides, it’s not like he hasn’t had a huge amount of options in front of him.

Three days later, he officially auditions with Nirvana. It takes two minutes for Krist Novoselic and Kurt Cobain to realise that this is their guy – he plays hard and, importantly, can sing back-up vocals. Dave Grohl plays his first ever show with Nirvana on October 11, 1990, and finds himself in a band who are at the forefront of the alternative explosion.

In an interview with Melody Maker conducted during their tour of the UK in the autumn, Dave says that one of the best things about being a member of Nirvana “is the fact that more and more major record companies are taking the band out to dinner to discuss a possible deal”.

For the hardcore kid who used to drum on a pillow in his bedroom, the starving days were over.